Part of me wants to believe that the revelation of Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assaults really doesn’t change much. Pattabhi Jois was a serial sexual predator and many of our most revered teachers were complicit in that abuse, but that doesn’t mean the whole system is flawed, does it? Can’t we just extend our sincere condolences to the victims and move along secure in the belief that things are different now?
He was just one man.
It is over and done with.
Sharath has apologized.
Forgiveness and positivity are all we need.
Everything will be okay.
Except I don’t truly believe any of that. I know it isn’t and won’t be okay. We are not safe from abuse. It’s tempting to trust that since Pattabhi Jois is deceased, and Sharath has expressed remorse over his grandfather’s actions, the problem is solved. Except the problem was never Pattabhi Jois alone. Abuse could never reach this scale without the silence and complicity of those around it. It was only Jois who assaulted these women, but how many to this day refuse to speak up, make substantive changes, and create a culture that honors coming forward?
It is understandable that just like some of the victims themselves, those who witnessed the abuse were intimidated, feeling caught between conflicting emotions. Jois’s students from those days often speak of him as charismatic and full of knowledge, and predators depend on their likability and privilege to insulate them from consequence. Compassionate people can understand, especially long before the Me Too era, how witnesses could compartmentalize such things. Even the victims themselves in some cases tried to rationalize what happened and put it aside.
All of that could likely be forgiven with the appropriate apology, admission of complicity, and adequate atonement; however, how many world famous teachers, beloved by tens of thousands, witnessed Jois sexually assault countless woman yet still stay silent as they continue to profit from their association with him? How many current senior teachers watched Jois grope, hump, and in some cases digitally rape their fellow students, yet still bow to alters of this man’s face? How many have yet to address the abuse? How many have yet to let the world know how they plan to make amends for exalting this man as a guru despite knowing he was a serial sexual predator? How many have yet to speak boldly and unwaveringly in support of the victims?
Way too fucking many, and therein lies our greatest shame and vulnerability as a community.
Don’t you see? It’s the silence and reticence to take bold action that allows these things to fester. It only takes one wicked man to commit an atrocity, but a sea of bystanders to let it keep happening. Abusers need a community in which people can be counted on to maintain the status quo at almost any cost. And, fellow Ashtangis, that is exactly what we’ve got. We are nothing if not rabid keepers of the status quo.
You might disagree. You may think our community and its leaders have been sympathetic and proactive. Several notable teachers have, after all, offered (arguably flippant or half-hearted) remorse. However, I propose that we only think those offerings are good enough because truly substantive action in the face of serial sexual assault is not something we’ve seen much of before. Imagine if, when Karen Rain first published her statement, every senior teacher spoke up loudly in her defense, especially the ones who witnessed it. Imagine if authorized teachers across the world, upon hearing these stories as they continued to come out, demanded that Sharath take action in support of these victims lest they never return nor send their students to Mysore. Imagine if Sharath himself organized a council on sexual assault prevention that included outside experts, along with the survivors themselves, then required every authorized teacher to adopt their mandates lest they lose his blessing to teach.
That imaginary world looks a whole lot different than the one we’ve got, doesn’t it? In our world, only a handful of senior teachers, even the ones who witnessed the abuse, have issued any public statement at all. Most of the statements we have gotten have been weak at best and defensive or dismissive at worst. According to some of the victims, those same senior teachers have yet to privately respond, either. Only a select few have taken any real action to shift the culture from one of complicity and silence to one that whole-heartedly encourages both dissent and consent. Perhaps there have been rumblings behind the scenes, but secrecy begets secrecy. We need a radical, public transition. If you are working to create change, please, invite the community to witness it. We need to see action! It would be healing and transformative for us all.
It is safe to say our leaders are largely failing us, but I’d like to challenge you to not accept this failure. I’d like to challenge you to demand that all teachers with whom you share your practice denounce Jois publicly and show unwavering solidarity with the victims. I’d like to challenge you to take your practice elsewhere if your teachers fail you in this way, to encourage your fellow students to do the same, and to be vocal about why you’re leaving. If we cannot count on our Shalas—supposed bastions of spiritual growth—to be places that strive to uphold the most basic tenants of the practice, then what the hell are we doing there? Gymnastics, perhaps, because it sure as hell isn’t yoga. You deserve a teacher who honors victims and works to protect from future abuse.
Above all else, we are called to do the least amount of harm possible as yoga practitioners, not to mention as decent humans. How many of us have given up meat and cheese, even honey and silk, in our quest to minimize violence in this world? I believe Pattabhi Jois’s victims, and vulnerable students everywhere, deserve at least that much consideration. How can we minimize harm to them? How can we mitigate damage? By doing nothing? With empty thoughts and prayers? Since when has that ever been enough? We need bold action. The discomfort of speaking up and making changes cannot be compared the traumatic pain of being sexually assaulted by your spiritual guide. It cannot compare to being cast out and demonized by community leaders whose responsibility it is to serve good above all else.
Our teachers cannot stay silent or offer action-less condolences and expect that to be good enough. Silence and inaction serve nothing but the status quo, and our current status quo is broken in the most fundamental way. Everyone is entitled to their personal journey, but no one is entitled to continue to position themselves as a leader if they refuse to do the right thing by their community. In yoga we consider our teachers to be torch-bearers, the guides who light our path. How do silence and inaction in the face of serial sexual assault fit into that? How does that minimize harm? It doesn’t, and it never will. It is time for bold action. It is time to create the space our shalas should have always been.
I know it is more comfortable to do nothing and believe all is well. I know this is incredibly overwhelming and may mean making seismic changes in our lives. But what has our yoga been preparing us for all this time? For handstands? Backbends? No fucking way. It has been preparing us for this exact moment—to stay steady on the path no matter the intensity of what we are experiencing. If it hasn’t, then your yoga is broken.
I’d like to end with posing an upsetting question.
What if you were sexually assaulted by one of the most revered teachers in our community? Would you feel safe coming forward? Do you believe you would be honored and others protected? Do you believe you’d be torn apart on social media while our supposed torch-bearers stayed silent and let it happen? Would you want the same treatment that Karen and others have gotten? My guess is that you’d want better.
So let’s do better.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” – Edward Hale
Here are the survivors testimonies. Read them. Ask your teachers if they have read these stories and what they have done to support them.